Academic freedom in an age of global digital delivery

During a virtual forum, Penn experts across disciplines discussed specific implications online learning can present for international students and their freedom of expression.

Zoom event with Jonathan, Pam, Amy, and Jacques
Penn experts at the virtual forum included Jonathan Zimmerman, Pam Grossman, Amy Gadsden, and Jacques deLisle. 

Academic freedom, and the possibility of having it stripped away, isn’t often on the minds of U.S. students. They recognize U.S. higher education’s overall commitment to ensuring students have a voice inside and outside of the classroom, without repercussions.

But university educators have become concerned in recent years that students who come from other countries, particularly those with authoritarian political systems, fear—quite regularly—that their words or actions, especially ones that challenge prevailing norms or beliefs, could be used against them. This negatively impacts their education, and their research interests, causing some to remain silent, even when they’d rather be speaking out. It not only harms their learning experience, but that of their classmates and teachers, too.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian and professor at the Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE), first realized this reality a few years ago. Chatting with an international student privately in his office, he asked why she didn’t bring up certain perspectives during class.

“She said she didn’t know who else was listening,” Zimmerman explained. “That was a huge wakeup call for me, the potential that there were spies in my classroom. I don’t know if she was right, but I don’t know if she was wrong.”

Zimmerman recalled this story during a virtual forum last week that focused on international students and academic freedom at American universities. Zimmerman was joined by Penn Law Professor Jacques deLisle and Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at Penn Global Amy Gadsden. The conversation was moderated by Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman.

The topic assumes new urgency amidst a worldwide pandemic that has required many college students to study from their homes around the globe. The growing digital learning environment has made monitoring or screening college classes much more tangible by forces that might seek to control.

In her opening remarks, Grossman noted that as universities reckon with an increasingly global academic community, it is time to “reexamine our practice and elaborate our thinking about academic freedom.”

“As more learning opportunities move onto a range of digital platforms,” she said, “how can we protect our student safety and our faculty members’ freedom alongside their rights to full and free open discussion, which lie at the heart of the university ideal?”

Gadsden, executive director of Penn China Initiatives, set the stage for the hourlong panel by discussing the issue from a Penn-wide perspective. She noted how the rapid switch to online learning and engaging since March made clear the “new world” we are all living in. After an issue in June when Zoom suspended accounts and blocked users in the U.S. and China who had participated in events commemorating the Tiananmen Incident, Gadsden said, “suddenly what may have been an abstract set of questions became very concrete.”

Penn realized early that as an institution it needed to deliver a message—“loud and clear,” Gadsden said, and equip faculty with the tools to ensure the safety and security of students abroad, as well as the University’s commitment to academic freedom. The Office of the Provost provided guidance to faculty this fall about upholding the values of academic freedom while being more open with students about potential risks.

“Our position has always been, on the Penn Global side, that you should behave and approach your class as you would under any other circumstances,” Gadsden said. “That you should not self-censor in any way.”

Touching specifically on the legal and regulatory frameworks that address academic freedom now, deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, noted how the online environment can create additional barriers and roadblocks for students across borders. A scholar and teacher of contemporary Chinese law and politics, deLisle focused his remarks on China, where many international students at Penn, and across the nation, hail from. He and colleagues found some best practices when considering students who might face difficulty learning abroad: the importance of being extremely clear about what content will be covered in a certain course before students enroll; possibly allowing for anonymous submissions of assignments with sensitive content; and a policy that provides students the opportunity to opt out of a specific section of a course that might be perceived as too controversial. He added that such protective moves would come at a cost to students’ educational experience and values of academic freedom.

Zimmerman, tying current concerns to a historical and systemic context, reiterated how U.S.-educated Chinese students have been seen as objects of suspicion in China as well as the U.S. since the late 1800s. Is there something deeper that the U.S. can do to help these students? he asked.

“What has me scared is the passivity and cynicism surrounding this question,” Zimmerman said. “The ‘it is what it is’ statement that drives historians nuts. ‘It is what it is’ but it wasn’t, and I hope someday it won’t be.”

Questions from the live audience spanned a variety of issues, which Grossman relayed from a chat box to the speakers. They elaborated on the idea of having the U.S. government create a set of norms for universities to address such academic freedom issues; when and why courses might be targeted for surveillance; atrocious anti-Chinese rhetoric during COVID-19; and much, much more.

Bringing the discussion to a close, deLisle explained the importance of stopping the “demonization” of students from other countries, especially those from China.

“If you want the best and brightest Chinese students to come here, even from a tuition flow and a brilliance-in-the-classroom perspective, you really have to worry about this and to try to beat it back,” he said. “I would hope that the government and universities as a whole act collectively to stand up for the values that are attracting those students to come here and push back against the ugliness that would discourage them from coming here.”

The event ended with a call to action: to encourage the continuation of these types of discussions, which can easily and often go overlooked.

Acknowledging there are “no easy answers,” Grossman said the forum’s aim wasn’t to provide them, but to instead “stimulate more systematic inquiry into these questions and to promote wider debate and understanding of principles of academic freedom and how they are expressed in an age of global digital delivery.”